Prior to yesterday’s game against Swansea, Manchester United had scored an average of three goals per game in Premier League matches played at Old Trafford this season. Following Manchester City’s earlier two goal win up at Newcastle to place them firmly in the driving seat for the title race, the only chance for United to remain in contention was to cut the eight goal advantage that their noisy neighbours held over them. Therefore, we can safely assume that the message to his title contenders in the dressing room moments before kick off by Sir Alex Ferguson would have been simply – goals, goals, goals. And to match the season’s average, at the very least three.
The morning press were clear in their evaluation of the challenge posed by Swansea, many of them suggesting that six, seven or eight would be a distinct possibility for Fergie’s boys, especially if they netted early and got on a roll. Despite the excellence of Swansea this season, it still seemed that many scribes were unconvinced by the Swans’ impressive performances, and even seemed to question the Welsh club’s collective appetite for the game. For evidence to back up their claims, many pointed to the two four goal hauls United had managed in their previous two games and to the unforgettable 8-2 thrashing of Arsenal at the start of the season. If they could score eight against Arsenal, what would they be capable of against Swansea when the stakes for United were at the very highest, seemed to be the most common question.
The answer really, especially when taking into account the context of the game and number of goals required, was very little. There have been times this season when Swansea have put visiting teams to the sword in terms of possession, even topping 70% possession on occasion. The scribes who so doubted Swansea, would surely have assumed that United would have had similar lofty ambitions for possession stats of that magnitude, but a return of 60% was hardly the complete domination predicted, and despite out passing Swansea by 513 to 329 in terms of accurate passes, this advantage never led to the avalanche of goals that was required, and in many quarters, expected.
In fact, despite the greater possession, United only forced Michel Vorm into five saves on top of the two goals he conceded, whilst Swansea tested David De Gea on six occasions. Hardly the return the expectant United fans required.
Those eager United fans didn’t get the explosive start they wanted either. They knew that any eventual avalanche of goals required a quick start, but that didn’t transpire and it wasn’t until the 28th minute that they breached the well organised Swansea defence and got the goal that their early dominance deserved. The goal, when it came, was a relatively simple one. Valencia, hugging the touch-line, was played in by Jones, and when left back Neil Taylor attempted to close the Ecuadorian down, he skipped passed him, got to the by line, played a diagonal ball back to Carrick, whose goal bound shot was flicked in, with his back to goal, by Scholes. The superb Joe Allen had marked Carrick, but when Valencia got past Taylor, Allen had no option but to close down the winger, but in doing this, Carrick was left completely unmarked, which made it easy for him to drill his shot at Scholes.
The lack of celebration by Scholes spoke volumes. He knew his team had needed a better start in terms of scoring and that his goal had to be a prelude for greater things if it was to have any significance at all. The hopeful United fans anticipated another goal would follow quickly, and it could have had Hernandez not wasted a superb chance just a minute later. But it was to be another 13 minutes before the Swansea goal was breached for the second, and far more importantly, final time in the game.
The goal itself will have disappointed Brendan Rodgers greatly, as it came from comfortable Swansea possession. Neil Taylor chipped the ball out of defence after breaking down a United move, and the ball fell to Scott Sinclair on the left wing. A clumsy touch by the winger, saw the ball go straight to Jones, who immediately fed Valencia. United retained possession for the next minute, before the ball was won back by Joe Allen who played an identical pass up to Sinclair as Taylor had done just 60 seconds earlier. Unfortunately, Sinclair’s touch was worse this time, just knocking the ball straight to Scholes in the Swansea box, who shifted it to Rooney whose blocked shot fell to Young who majestically curled his shot around the helpless Rangel, Vorm and Williams, bending the ball unerringly into the far corner of the goal. Despite the excellence of the finish, this was a goal that could have been avoided had Swansea not squandered possession twice in quick succession. Michel Vorm’s anger towards Swansea’s young left winger clearly showed where he felt the fault for the goal lay.
Again, the lack of celebration by Young showed that two – nil was never going to be enough and that was demonstrated in the last five minutes of the half, when United seemed to sense blood and pressed aggressively for a third. Swansea, marshalled superbly by captain Ashley Williams, defended with courage and ensured that, ultimately, that third goal – or a goal avalanche of any description – never came. Perhaps the key reason why that avalanche never came to be in the second period was the introduction at half time of Swansea’s pass master, Leon Britton.
Next Page: Gower compared to Britton statistically… (Click below right or top right for page numbers)
It’s often unfair to compare team mates who, whilst playing the same position, go about their jobs in a different style, but the impact that Britton had following his half time introduction for Mark Gower was so significant, that Britton and Gower’s contribution yesterday requires further analysis.
I think the difference between Gower and Britton yesterday can probably be best described in one word – precision. There’s no doubt Gower worked hard for the Swansea cause in the first half, but his passing stats on the day don’t come close to Britton’s. In the first half, Gower attempted 33 open play passes, completing 26 for a success rate of 79%. In comparison, Britton attempted 27 passes, completing each one. Again, this diminutive midfielder demonstrated just what a master of his art he is. To emphasise Britton’s ability to link his defenders with his forward players, 3% more of his passes were played into forward areas than Gower managed, and to complete the swing, Gower played 3% more backward passes than Britton. Small margins I grant you, but in the Premier League, success and failure – generally – are decided by the smallest of margins.
In fairness, defensively, Gower just pipped Britton, making one more successful tackle than his replacement and making one more interception, but I think the control that Britton delivered in that second half, when United threatened to run away with it, was clearly the reason that Rodgers made the change, and he must have been delighted with his decision the more Britton’s influence over the game grew.
Despite United picking up where they left off in the early stages of the second half, conversely, so their clear-cut chances actually fell, which was not what Sir Alex would have expected. In fact, in the first hour of the game, United had manufactured 14 shots on Michel Vorm’s goal, but in the last half hour, just two. Much of this could be put down to Britton’s introduction, as not only did he form a solid defensive triangle with Williams and Caulker, he was also able to ensure that Swansea used their limited possession more effectively, in particular when Danny Graham went close and Nathan Dyer then squandered a glorious chance when he blasted over from inside the box.
Still, despite superb performances from Allen (94.4% passing success), Britton and once again from Sigurdsson (50% of Swansea’s on target shots), ultimately, Swansea lost the game. As disappointing as that always is, and whilst it never seems sensible to celebrate a defeat, the facts of the game were that Swansea came up against the reigning champions, with the biggest incentive of their season, requiring them to score an absolute hatful of goals. And Swansea, whilst sometimes getting over-run denied them that haul of goals that the entire red half of Manchester demanded. Not conceding in the second 45 minutes, when traditionally, United have blitzed teams and blown them away – particularly in the closing stages – was a magnificent achievement for a Swansea defence led superbly by Williams and ably assisted by Caulker and the resolute and hardworking Taylor and Rangel. To draw that second half nil – nil, when United would have been desperate to have won it four or five nil, ranks, in my opinion, as one of the real high points of this superb début Premier League season by Swansea.
All that remains for Swansea now in this outstanding début season in the top flight, is Liverpool at home and Brendan Rodgers and his team certainly have nothing to fear there, such has been the inconsistency this season of the one time football giants.